Whistleblower blasts Georgia immigration detention center’s COVID-19 response

Detainees at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, putting together a puzzle on Thursday, April 19, 2012. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Detainees at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, putting together a puzzle on Thursday, April 19, 2012. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Complaint also cites high number of hysterectomies performed on detainees detained at Ocilla facility

A coalition of advocacy groups filed a federal complaint on Monday against the private company that operates an immigration detention center in South Georgia, alleging the company is failing to protect detainees and employees from the spread of COVID-19.

Filed with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, the 27-page complaint is based partly on the information supplied by a whistleblower identified as Dawn Wooten, a licensed practical nurse who worked in the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla. She is scheduled to speak at a news conference at noon Tuesday in downtown Atlanta.

She told the inspector general the detention center refused to test symptomatic detainees for COVID-19, failed to distribute personal protective equipment to staff and systematically underreported COVID-19 cases, according to the advocacy groups.

“This complaint highlights jarring accounts from detained immigrants and Ms. Wooten regarding the deliberate lack of medical care, unsafe work practices, and absence of adequate protection against COVID-19 for detained immigrants and employees alike,” Project South and the Government Accountability Project said in a news release. Both groups are representing Wooten.

A spokesman for the company that operates the detention center, Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections, did not respond to requests for comment. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released a statement Monday evening, saying it is "firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody.”

“Since the onset of reports of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” ICE said, “ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees."

As of Thursday, the federal agency had reported 42 cases of COVID-19 among Irwin’s detainees and no deaths from the disease. Nationwide, there have been 5,686 detainee cases and six deaths from COVID-19, including two at Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia.

Project South filed the federal complaint Monday along with Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network.

Wooten was not available for comment Monday. But she told The Intercept she had repeatedly complained to leadership about medical safety at the detention center in Ocilla before she was demoted, a move she says was retaliation for speaking up.

“They’re still not taking this seriously,” Wooten told The Intercept. “Enough was enough.”

In July, a separate immigration detention center operated by LaSalle in Louisiana, Richwood Correctional Center, drew complaints. Saying it represented whistleblowers who worked there, the Government Accountability Project sent a letter to Congress, alleging “gross mismanagement, dangerous practices, and compliance failures” that exacerbated the spread of COVID-19.

ICE has documented 100 cases of the disease among detainees at Richwood.

LaSalle’s executive director, Rodney Cooper, testified before Congress three days after the Government Accountability Project’s complaint, citing “tremendous efforts our company is taking to mitigate impacts of this unprecedented pandemic.”

He added his company’s “consistent preparation, prevention and management measures have served as a foundation to reduce the risk of transmission and severity of illness from COVID-19. To date no ICE detainee in our care has succumbed to COVID-19.”

The complaint filed by the advocacy groups also says a high rate of hysterectomies have been performed on detainees held at the Ocilla facility.

“Ms. Wooten also stated that detained women expressed to her that they didn’t fully understand why they had to get a hysterectomy,” the complaint says. "She said: ‘I’ve had several inmates tell me that they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going.’”

Georgia House Minority Leader Robert Trammell Jr. of Luthersville reacted to news media reports about the hysterectomies Monday by sending a letter to the Georgia Composite Medical Board and Georgia Board of Nursing.

“I am writing to request that you immediately suspend the licenses of the providers named in the whistleblower complaint," Trammell wrote, "pending a full investigation by your offices.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.